Minnesota Supreme Court Announces Expanding Scope of Traffic Stop to Investigate Occupant’s Pretrial Release Conditions Violates Minnesota Constitution
by Douglas Ankney
In a case of first impressions, the Supreme Court of Minnesota held that violation of a condition of pretrial release doesn’t constitute criminal activity, so police questioning of a passenger regarding his conditions of pretrial release during a traffic stop exceeds the permissible scope of the traffic stop and thus constitutes a violation of Article I, Section 10 of the Minnesota Constitution.
In November 2017, Leech Lake Tribal Police initiated a traffic stop of a vehicle driven by an adult female for failing to properly signal a turn. Carlos Ramone Sargent was one of three passengers in the vehicle. During the traffic stop, officers smelled an odor of alcohol emanating from inside the vehicle. The driver stated she had not been drinking, but the three passengers, including Sargent, admitted that they had consumed alcohol earlier in the evening. A breath test confirmed the driver’s sobriety.
One of the officers recognized Sargent from an unrelated investigation and knew that a district court had granted him pretrial release, but didn’t know the conditions of his release, after he’d been arrested on possession of a controlled substance and driving while impaired. The officer questioned Sargent as to whether he had “a no drink” condition as part of his pretrial release. Sargent responded affirmatively. Sargent then agreed to a breath test that registered an alcohol concentration of 0.03. The officer arrested Sargent for violating the conditions of his pretrial release.
A subsequent pat-down search of Sargent revealed ammunition in his pocket. The State charged him with illegal possession of ammunition. Sargent moved pretrial to suppress the evidence, arguing that the questions about the conditions of his pretrial release improperly expanded the scope of the traffic stop. The district court denied the motion, reasoning that the officer had reasonable articulable suspicion that Sargent was violating a condition of pretrial release to expand the scope of the traffic stop. Sargent then agreed to a bench trial on stipulated evidence to obtain a review of the denial of his suppression motion. The district court found him guilty, and he appealed. The court of appeals affirmed, and the Minnesota Supreme Court granted Sargent further review.
The Court observed that “[b]oth the Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitutional and Article I, Section 10 of the Minnesota Constitution protect the ‘right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures.’” See State v. Askerooth, 681 N.W.2d 353 (Minn. 2004). Although identical in language, the Court explained that the Minnesota Supreme Court has interpreted Article I, Section 10 to provide greater protection than the Fourth Amendment. See id.
The first step in analyzing an alleged violation of Article I, Section 10 is to determine if the police’s conduct constitutes a search or seizure. State v. Davis, 732 N.W.2d 173 (Minn. 2007). The Court noted that the parties in the present case concede that the questioning of Sargent about his pretrial release conditions was a seizure. State v. Fort, 660 N.W.2d 415 (Minn. 2003). Consequently, the first step in the analysis is complete.
The Court explained that the next step in the analysis is to determine whether the search or seizure is unreasonable. See Davis. A warrantless search or seizure is treated as unreasonable per se. State v. Burbach, 706 N.W.2d 484 (Minn. 2005). The State, therefore, bears the burden of showing that a warrantless search or seizure falls within one of the “specifically established and well delineated exceptions” to the warrant requirement. Id.
In the instant case, the State relies on the Terry stop exception to the warrant requirement set forth by the U.S. Supreme Court in Terry v. Ohio, 392, U.S. 1, (1968), which the Minnesota Supreme Court has summarized as: “police may stop and frisk a person when (1) they have a reasonable, articulable suspicion that a suspect might be engaged in criminal activity and (2) the officer reasonably believes the suspect might be armed and dangerous.” State v. Dickerson, 481 N.W.2d 840 (Minn. 1992). “The purpose of the limited search is not to discover evidence of crime, but to allow the officer to pursue his investigation without fear of violence …” Adams v. Williams, 407 U.S. 143 (1972). The Court stated that the Minnesota Supreme Court has expressly adopted “the principles and framework of Terry for evaluating the reasonableness of seizures during traffic stops even when a minor law has been violated.” Askerooth.
The Court stated that applying the Terry framework to traffic stops involves a two-prong analysis. See id. The first prong asks whether the traffic stop “was justified at its inception,” id., by establishing that police had “reasonable articulable suspicion.” State v. Diede, 795 N.W.2d 836 (Minn. 2011).
If police had reasonable suspicion to justify the initial traffic stop, the second prong examines whether “the actions of the police during the stop were reasonably related to and justified by the circumstances that gave rise to the stop in the first place.” Id. A traffic stop that’s initially valid may “become invalid if it becomes ‘intolerable’ in its ‘intensity or scope.’” Terry. “[T]he tolerable duration of police inquiries in the traffic-stop context is determined by the seizure’s ‘mission’ to address the traffic violation that warranted the stop and attend to related safety concerns.” Rodriguez v. United States, 575 U.S. 354 (2015). “Any expansion of the scope or duration of a traffic stop must be justified by articulable suspicion of other criminal activity.” Fort.
The Court explained that the progression of police investigation beyond the initial purpose of the initial traffic stop must “be tied to and justified by one of the following: (1) the original legitimate purpose of the stop, (2) independent probable cause, or (3) reasonableness as defined in Terry.” Askerooth.
Turning to the present case, Sargent acknowledged that the initial traffic stop for failure to signal a turn was lawful, so the analysis shifts to the second prong of the Terry framework. As an initial matter, the Court stated that violating a condition of pretrial release is not a crime. See State v. Jones, 869 N.W.2d 24 (same conclusion in the context of probation violations). Consequently, when police questioned Sargent about the conditions of his pretrial release, they were not investigating a crime.
The Court rejected the court of appeals’ position that it wasn’t convinced that “the noncriminal nature of pretrial-release violation requires a conclusion that expansion of a warrantless seizure to investigate such a violation is never constitutionally reasonable.” State v. Sargent, 951 N.W.2d 121 (Minn. App. 2020). It explained: “Indeed, it is precisely the noncriminal nature of Sargent’s conduct that leads us to conclude that the officer’s questioning was unreasonable in its scope.”
The Court expressly refused to permit police to subject motorists and their passengers to questions regarding noncriminal conduct with no relation to the initial purpose of the traffic stop, reasoning that to allow such questioning would be in direct contravention of “the individual’s right to personal security free from arbitrary interference by law officers” enshrined in Article I, Section 10 of the state Constitution. Quoting United States v. Brignoni-Ponce, 422 U.S. 873 (1975). The Court reaffirmed the fundamental constitutional principle that “an officer must have reasonable articulable suspicion of criminal activity—that is, conduct that is a crime under Minnesota law—to expand the scope of a traffic stop.”
Thus, the Court ruled that police questioning of Sargent’s conditions of pretrial release exceeded the permitted scope of the traffic stop in violation of Article I, Section 10 of the Minnesota Constitution.
Accordingly, the Court reversed the decision of the courts of appeals and remanded to the district court with directions to vacate Sargent’s conviction and grant his motion to suppress. See: State v. Sargent, 968 N.W.2d 32 (Minn. 2021).
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